As the new age of online education solidifies itself in university curriculum, students have no doubt noticed an increase in “discussion post” assignments through Blackboard Learn. While masquerading as a platform for the free exchange of ideas and organic conversation, the virtual space instead encourages nothing more than rote repetitions and buzzword-heavy responses.
The shift from in-person learning to Zoom-conducted lectures has been a tough experience for students. We have been forced to sacrifice many of the comforts of face-to-face education, and our college experience has been fundamentally altered. Study groups at Zimmerman Library, group projects in class and the basic feeling of being surrounded by a diverse population with unique and differing perspectives have all been stripped from us by the coronavirus pandemic.
But the alternative to stimulating debate cannot be reduced to a quiz-style writing assignment passed off as an honest attempt at building communication between peers. It’s not only damaging to students' passion to deliberate, but it’s also downright lazy coming from an environment that should encourage and enable students’ progression.
The written word is no tool for discourse among a diverse group of people. Who has ever heard of a Socratic seminar conducted through a group chat? Think of the last time you had a debate with a friend over text, and tell me you wouldn’t rather have been able to explain yourself in person, instead of typing essays through the phone.
These discussion post assignments are also unnecessarily burdensome for what they attempt to substitute. A student with five separate classes, each with their own quizzes, homework assignments and study requirements now has to deal with a new breed of busywork. In this “discussion,” students churn out opinions onto a page while making sure to include all the right keywords to show their understanding of the material. Then, students are commonly required to reply to other students to offer their opinions on the others' opinions. All of this just to attempt to substitute an organic back-and-forth during a two-minute lull in an in-person lecture. It’s not even remotely proportionate.
So instead, what is produced by these discussions is nothing more than mechanical regurgitation of the original post.
“I agree when you said (blank),” one post will read, the subject of the sentence no doubt picked at random from the word soup above. “I thought it was really interesting that you said (so-and-so).”
If student responses are expected to fall within a certain word count, is anything giving them incentive to think deeper than a word requirement? If a professor mandates a structure be followed in order to submit an opinion, does that sound like a foundation of organic conversation? It’s clear just by reading through the entries: The answer is a painfully obvious “no.”
By mandating and scoring discourse between students, a professor inherently creates a rigid social atmosphere that true debate cannot thrive in, let alone exist in at all. Instead, discussion should be encouraged and allowed during lecture, but certainly not required. Set aside five minutes at the beginning of a lecture for people to chat if they’d like, or utilize Zoom’s “breakout room” function to give students time to discuss the topic at hand that day.
Thought-provoking dialogue between students is one of the most celebrated facets of university education. It’s imperative that the University of New Mexico maintains its commitment to that discourse and explores ways that can better accommodate students who want to engage in it.
Liam DeBonis is the photo editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LiamDebonis